Kim Novotny knows meals at Merrowvista are important community experiences. As Food Program Manager, she strives to make those meals healthy, delicious, and memorable. Novotny first joined the Merrowvista seasonal food program team in 2003, where she discovered a career in the camp kitchen was a perfect fit. Here, she shares why she encourages campers to learn about the environmental impact of their food choices, why she works to accommodate all dietary needs, and how she gets even the pickiest eaters to try new things.
You became Food Program Manager in 2016. Why did you want to take on this role?
I was running a kitchen at a local elementary school, and I was unhappy with the heavy regulations placed on school meals and the restrictions on making food available to those who needed it most. There was so much waste! The Merrowvista Food Service Manager at the time let me know he was moving on, and it seemed like the perfect opportunity to go full time at camp.
What were some of your top priorities when you took the job?
The previous manager had done some amazing work changing the food culture at camp. I wanted to be even more approachable. I love seeing shy campers learn to advocate for their own health and food needs. We have more staff and campers with food allergies and preferences than ever, and I try hard to accommodate and give them more options. I also wanted a kitchen that not only ran efficiently, but also has fun doing it. There’s a sign on my window that says, “We dance in this kitchen!” So many kitchens run with hot tempers and chaos, and I am happy to say we are the opposite of that.
People know the Food Program Manager plans and prepares the meals. What other elements of your job might surprise people?
I try hard to create meals for all dietary needs, which has been a fun challenge. Creating desserts or other menu items instead of buying pre-made or processed items is time-consuming, but very rewarding.
How do you strive to make camp meals memorable experiences?
Special meal days like Crazy Dinner and ’50s Night are fun! I think by far my favorite meal is always the first night of camp when we serve Pasta Bomb: pasta, marinara sauce, green beans, dinner rolls and grated Parmesan. The kids are so excited – it’s a meal they all love.
How do you encourage campers to try new or unfamiliar foods?
You would be amazed at how many picky eaters will try many new foods! We do “try me” bowls of local produce like Brussels sprouts, kale, or Queen Anne turnips so each camper can take one piece. If they like it, we keep larger bowls on the salad bars. Amazingly enough, they usually disappear!
The AYF Food Program Guiding Principles focus on educating campers on health and our food system’s impact on the environment. Why are these important messages for youth to hear?
It is so important for kids to understand where the food they eat comes from and the effort it takes to get some of their favorite items to the table. It builds an understanding of food sources and provides a great opportunity for them to form healthy eating habits.
You enjoy working with local farmers when possible. Why is this an important part of the Merrowvista food program?
We love our local growers and what they add to our food program. Staff especially love to see what’s in season throughout the year. I think it’s worth every bean in order to enjoy fresh produce and help sustain local farmers.
You believe working at Merrowvista has made you a better person. How so?
Merrowvista has introduced me to so many people and cultures. I have wonderful connections to people from all over the world who I would have never met. They have inspired me to be more open, understanding, and engaged. Before joining the AYF, I had a narrow view of life, never having been exposed to such diversity.
Your own children attended Merrowvista. How did camp affect their lives?
Three of our four children attended camp for one summer. They loved meeting and making lifelong friends from all over the country.
What do you like to do outside of work?
I love entertaining at our home and spending time with friends and family. I love to draw, paint, and do just about anything crafty.